By Leonard Klady

Confessions of a Film Festival Junkie: Shape of Water, The Florida Project

The Shape of Water, Guillermo del Toro’s enchanting fairytale that won the top prize in Venice, could well garner the audience award that concludes the Toronto International Film Festival each year. It’s another work of extraordinary imagination, and despite a few graphic and shocking sequences, a disarming, emotional tale suitable for all ages.

Mute Eliza (Sally Hawkins) works as a cleaner at a high security government lab during the Cold War. The installation gets a new “asset” and Eliza winds up seeing something she shouldn’t. The research subject is hybrid man-amphibian resembling the 1950s Creature from the Black Lagoon. While the G-Man jailer (Michael Shannon) uses brute force to suppress the being, the woman treats him compassionately in a variation on Beauty and the Beast. The Shape of Water is dreamlike, referencing not only the Technicolor palette of the 1940s and 1950s but also the kind of programmer musical studios could have cranked out in the 1940s. Only a very cold heart would not respond to this material.

As the festival winds down, the weather is sunny and warm. Despite Toronto becoming a city for the very well off, it was shocking to see homeless sleeping in the middle of downtown streets atop a warm grate.

TIFF is evolving, too, but no one knows what changes are in the wind. It’s difficult to pinpoint how scaling back the program translates into the overall experience. Nonetheless, Toronto’s program feels less exhaustive than in the past, while crowds seem larger. The traditional Tuesday exodus of industry and press seemed to pass a day later this year, but it’s clear the event has a long way to go if it wants pros to stay beyond opening weekend.

One of the delights of any film festival is stumbling into a screening and finding a gem. This year, that was The Florida Project. I was in line for a French film when it was cancelled and this was its replacement. A fellow queuer said, it’s the new Sean Baker, and people love it. I’d seen Baker’s earlier MTV series “Greg the Bunny” and his L.A.-by-iPhone Tangerine but they didn’t prepare me for this: a documentary-like view of poor people who inhabit a residential motel in Orlando, only a few miles from Disney World. The leading character is a 6-year-old girl named Moonee with a wicked streak of mischief that infects her two friends. The adults are consistently down on their luck, including Moonee’s mother, who sometimes sells perfume at hotel entrances to pay the weekly rent.

Willem Dafoe’s low-key performance as the motel’s kindly manager grounds the film in fiction. Rich on incident and observation rather than plot, The Florida Project keeps you engaged and connected to the characters.

Another surprise was the French film Les Gardiennes, another of my wild stabs in the dark when without a scheduled film. A young woman secures a job on a farm during the First World War; it’s harvest time and apart from the very old and the very young, the able-bodied men are at the front. It’s another low-key experience, but precisely observed. The creation of bygone times is exquisitely rendered. Later I realized that the director Xavier Beauvois had previously made another exceptional film, Of Gods and Men, about French monks in a remote area of Algeria that find themselves caught up in civil war and forces that would challenge their faith.

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“So, what does it look like when he leaves the show? First, it looks like a ratings spike, and I had a nice chuckle about that. But the truth is, the ink wasn’t even dry on his exit papers before they rushed in a new guy. I was on vacation in Sicily, decompressing — it was a long working relationship and it was a tumultuous end and I needed a moment to just chill with some rosé — and they’re calling me, going, ‘What do you think of this guy?’ ‘What do you think of this guy?’ And they’re sending pictures. I was like, ‘Are you people fucking nuts? Why do you feel that you have to replace this person?’ I couldn’t believe how fast the studio and the network felt like they had to get a penis in there.”
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